Dead Midnight
By Marcia Muller
Published by Mysterious Press 
July 2002; 0-892-96765-X; 320 pages

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Dead Midnight by Marcia MullerMonday
APRIL 9

At one time or another, it happens to everyone. A call comes late at night, bringing news of the death of someone close, and with it a nightmarish sense of unreality. You entertain selfish thoughts: Why is this happening to me? Then you immediately feel ashamed because tragedy has not actually struck you. You, after all, are still alive, healthy, and reasonably sane.

Practicalities intrude, because they are a way of keeping the pain at bay. To whom to break the news, and how? What arrangements must be made? How badly will your life be disrupted? But in the end it all boils down to loss and finality -in my case, loss and finality heaped upon recent losses and betrayals.

My call came at eleven-twenty P.M., from a deputy sheriff in Humboldt County, some two hundred and seventy miles north of San Francisco. Deputy Steve Brouillette. I'd spoken with him several times over the past six months, but he'd never had any news for me. Now he did, and it was bad. My brother Joey was dead at age forty-five. By his own hand.

 

Friday
APRIL 13

"I'd hate to think we're going to be making a habit of this." My brother John's remark, I knew, was intended to provide comic relief but, given the nature of the situation, it was destined to fail. I looked up at him, shielding my eyes against the afternoon sun, and saw his snub-nosed face was etched with pain. He slouched under the high wing of the Cessna 170B, one hand resting on its strut, his longish hair blowing in the breeze. With surprise I noted strands of white interwoven with the blond of his sideburns. Surely they hadn't been there at Christmas time?

"Sorry," he said, "but it's a thought that must've occurred to you too."

My gaze shifted across San Diego's Lindbergh Field to the west, where we'd earlier scattered Joey's ashes at sea. Joey, the family clown. Joey, whom we'd assumed had never entertained a somber thought in his life. The dumb but much loved one; the wanderer who was sorely missed at family gatherings; the worker who more often than not was fired from his low-end jobs but still managed to land on his feet.

Joey, a suicide.

"Yes," I said, "it's occurred to me. First Pa, now this."

"And Ma and Melvin aren't getting any younger."

"Who is?" I moved away and began walking around the plane. A red taildragger with jaunty blue trim, Two-five-two- seven-Tango was my prize possession, co-owned with my longtime love, Hy Ripinsky. I ran my hand over the fuselage, checked the elevators and rudder-preflighting, because I felt a sudden urge to be away from there.

John followed me. "I keep trying to figure out why he did it."

I went along the other side of the plane without responding.

As he gave me a boost up so I could check the fuel level in the left tank, he added, "What could've gone that wrong with his life? That he'd kill himself ?"

"I don't know."

John hadn't wanted to talk about Joey when I'd arrived last night, and he'd been mostly silent on today's flight over the Pacific and later at lunch in the terminal restaurant. Now, in the visitor tie-downs, he seemed determined to initiate a weighty discussion.

"I mean, he had a lot going for himself when he disappeared. A good job, a nice woman-"

"And a crappy trailer filled with empty booze and pill bottles." I eased off the strut and continued my checks. "From what Humboldt County told me when they called, the shack where he offed himself had the same decor." John grunted; my harsh words had shocked him. Shocked me, too, because up till now I hadn't been aware of how much anger I felt toward Joey.

I opened the engine cowling and stared blankly inside. One of those strange lapses, like walking into a room and not knowing what you went there for. Jesus, McCone, I thought, get a grip. I reached in to check the oil, distracted by memories of my search for Joey.

When Pa died early in the previous September, we hadn't been able to reach Joey at his last address, and it wasn't till the end of the month that John traced him to a run-down trailer park near the Mendocino County hamlet of Anchor Bay. By then he'd disappeared again, leaving behind all his possessions and a brokenhearted girlfriend. I immediately began a trace of my own, but gave up after two fruitless months, assuming that-in typical Joey fashion-he'd resurface when he was good and ready. Then, this past Monday, the call from Deputy Brouillette. Joey had been found dead of an alcohol-and-barbiturate overdose in a shabby rental house in Samoa, a mill town northwest of Eureka. His handwritten note simply said, "I'm sorry."

I shut the cowling and climbed up to check the right fuel tank. I was replacing its cap when John spoke again. "Shar, haven't you wondered? Why he did it?"

"Of course I have." I twisted the cap-hard, and not just for safety's sake-and lowered myself to the ground. Why was he doing this now, when he knew I wanted to leave?

"We should've realized something was wrong. There must've been signs.We could've helped him."

I wiped my oil-slick fingers on my jeans. "John, there was no way we could've known."

"But we should've. He was our brother."

"Look, you and I lived with Joey for what was actually a very short time. He was five years older than I, and for the most part we went our separate ways. I doubt I ever had a real conversation with him. And as far as I know, all the two of you ever did together was stick your noses under the hoods of cars, drink beer, and get in trouble with the cops. During the past fifteen years, Ma's the only one who got so much as a card or a call from him. Half the time we didn't know where he was living or what he was doing. So you tell me how we could've seen signs and known he needed help."

John sighed, giving up the illusion. "I guess that's what makes it so hard to deal with."

"Yeah, it is."

I took the keys to the plane from my pocket, and his eyes moved to them. "So where're you headed?"

"Hy's ranch for the Easter weekend, then back to San Francisco. I've got a new hire to bring up to speed at the agency, and a Monday lunch with an attorney who throws a lot of business my way."

"Gonna keep yourself busy, keep your mind off Joey."

"Is that so bad?" He shook his head.

Not so bad to try to forget that sometimes people we love commit self-destructive acts that are enough to temporarily turn that love to hatred.

Copyright 2002 Pronzini-Muller Family Trust
Reprinted with permission.
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Synopsis

Sharon McCone, who has faced and survived many personal crises, must endure another long, dark journey after her brother Joey takes his own life. Reeling from the anguish and the perplexing reasons for Joey's suicide, Sharon tries to escape through work.

On the surface, the new case seems straightforward enough. Yet as the keen private investigator knows, it's often what's hiding under the surface that's deadly. McCone is asked to investigate another suicide, this one of Roger Nagasawa, a talented young man who worked for an online magazine that chronicled the new and hip in the Bay area. Even with millions of dollars in venture capital backing it, Insite is failing and the 'zine's management has become so cutthroat that Roger evidently jumped off the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge rather than face another day at the office. Or did something sinister behind the scenes prod him to take the plunge?

The investigation hits achingly close to home as McCone struggles to answer the questions that plague Roger's grieving family. With her emotions sandblasted and her reactions slowed, she fails to recognize the peril that surrounds her as the case takes a violent twist.

From Roger's empty apartment to an eerie abandoned resort on the San Francisco waterfront, McCone is caught in a deadly battle to uncover the truth. And to survive, she must confront the many painful secrets of her own life...and a killer whose heart is as black as the moonless bay.

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Author

Marcia MullerMarcia Muller is the author of more than twenty novels and many short mystery stories. She has also established a brilliant reputation as an anthologist and critic of mystery fiction. In 1993 she was awarded the Private Eye Writers of America Life Achievement Award, and Wolf in the Shadows was nominated for the 1994 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Crime Novel and won the Anthony Boucher Award. She lives with her husband, mystery writer Bill Pronzini, in northern California.

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